Gateway to the Classics: Great Artists: Volume Three by Jennie Ellis Keysor
Great Artists: Volume Three by  Jennie Ellis Keysor

"Venice was precisely fitted for the part her painters had to play. Free, isolated, wealthy, powerful; Venice, with her pavement of liquid chrysoprase and her palaces of porphyry and marble, her frescoed façades, her quays and squares aglow with the costumes of the Levant, her lagoons afloat with the galleys of all nations, her churches floored with mosaics, her silvery domes and ceilings glittering with sculpture bathed in molten gold; Venice asleep like a miracle of opal or of pearl upon the bosom of an undulating lake—here and here only on the face of the whole globe was the unique city wherein the pride of life might combine with the luster of the physical universe to create and stimulate in the artist a sense of all that was most sumptuous in the pageant of the world of sense."

J. A. Symonds

Venice, the City of Titian

Sometime in the fifth century, when the barbarians of the North were swarming down upon Italy, killing and destroying everything which stood in their way, a company of some forty thousand terrified men, women and children fled for safety to some islands near the head of the Adriatic. Here they founded what, in those early days, they called the Rialto. About this center grew what we safely may denominate the most wonderful city of modern times—Venice, "Bride of the sea," "White water-lily of cities," "Queen of the Adriatic," or any other fine name that the imagination can conjure up.


The Rialto, Venice

Some may dispute our naming it the most wonderful city of modern times, but none can gainsay that it is the most unique. Situated on more than seventy islands, connected by numerous bridges, with no streets but the soundless water-ways, with no conveyances but the shapely gondolas with their parti-colored awnings, with no fields or waving forests, it is indeed the dream city that poets have loved to picture. It is a city to the heart's desire of any artist, whether he be a disciple of color or of line. Let us for a moment study a few of the things that would appeal to the colorist.

The matchless play of light, the reflected hues brought out by the Italian sun which transforms even the mists into gorgeous multi-colored mantles for her buildings, the distant peaks of the Alps veiled in splendor, the restless, ever-shifting colors of the water, the very song of the gaily dressed gondoliers make Venice the color center of the world and a sense of color the most pervading influence of the city. We note that, while the painters of Florence used the varying shades of brown, those of Venice revelled in the shifting hues of the opal or of the wavelet that glistens a moment in the sun and then breaks into opalescent spray at the foot of some storied palace or against the side of a sliding gondola.

This much for the color which this magic city makes one feel. But man cannot live by beauty alone, so the practical one asks, what were the resources of this island city, how was it ruled and what was its rank among the communities of the earth? Answering the first question—no fleeing body of people ever took refuge in so barren a region apparently. That the Venetians ever arose to wealth and power seems a take of magic. They had no land to till, no forests to convert into wood, no quarries from which to get stone, no mines from which to gather precious ore. They even lacked good water to drink. A salt march with its outlying islands was their refuge, a haven so unattractive that the most relentless foe would hesitate to follow them thither.

Their industry and pertinacity alone accomplished the magic of their achievement. They saw wealth in the salt that lined their shores and for centuries it was a source of enormous revenue. Gradually the primitive, flat-bottomed boats which they used for carrying it developed into the well equipped vessels which carried the standard of St. Mark to all parts of the civilized world. They carried her commodities, which had increased with her development, and exchanged them for the treasures of the world which accumulated in the island city or were sold at a goodly profit.

At the time of the Crusades a great tide of men with their supplies poured through Venice, the natural gateway of the East. This gave a wonderful impetus to Venetian prosperity and settled the fact that this "city of refuge" had become not only the mistress of the Adriatic but of the Mediterranean as well, directing all its trade with the East. Not only were her ships for trading purposes, but a time came when, within the short space of a hundred days, she built and manned a hundred vessels for defense and to extend the name and fame of Venice.

This was in the middle of the thirteenth century and marks the highest point ever reached in her career. Her neighbors began to look with jealousy upon a city so powerful that all through traffic had to gain her permission before it could go on its way. Leagues were consequently formed to prevent her from usurping still more power.

She first found it necessary to withdraw within herself, then she gradually declined along with the other great Italian cities. Even to-day, however, she is a very substantial shadow of her former self. Her palaces and churches reflect themselves no less grandly than of old in the changeless waters of the lagoons and age has given to much of her grandeur a mellowness that adds to rather than detracts from the wonderful picture.

From the beginning the government was in the hands of a few of the nobles. The Council of Ten and the Doge ruled the people so well that for fourteen hundred years there was hardly a change. Venice thus put herself down in the history as the most stable of the Italian republics. This is not saying that there was no tyranny and wickedness in the government. Indeed, quite the contrary was true. The government of Venice was stained with many of the crimes characteristic of the centuries through which it stood. Doges were beheaded for trying to usurp power and citizens suffered terrible punishments for conspiracy. Poisoning and intrigues were common, but under all were a stability and a patriotism most admirable.

The outward life was gay and picturesque. It abounded in the orientalism which so naturally came to it out of the East, for Venice was the stepping stone, as it were, between the old world and the new. There was a romantic spirit no less than a romantic exterior. Venice was devoted to her legends. The figure representing their city was a stately woman bedecked with jewels and gorgeous with rich satins and brocades. On her head was the crown of royalty and in her hand the sceptre of power, and she sat or stood enthroned on a lofty pedestal. Literally there was no such figure in existence, but such a woman reigned in every citizen's heart and he was proud to be her obedient subject.

Yearly was celebrated the picturesque rite of the betrothal to the sea when, combining real with imaginary things, the ring of betrothal was flung far out into the sea in token that the mystic marriage was accomplished. The city boasted two patron saints, Theodore, their early warrior saint, and St. Mark, whose wonderful lion is on every side of the island city. It is safe to say that the heart of Venice was in her legends at the time when Titian and the other great Venetian painters did their wonderful work.

Of their religion one can hardly say as much. To them it was a mere surface matter and did not affect them so much as their legends or as their splendid ceremonials. If their painters depict Bible scenes one at once detects the sumptuous or gorgeous element. Indeed, if this is not evident in the original the artist will in some way mark the scene so that it shall not lack this quality. "The Marriage at Cana"  by Paul Veronese illustrates this point. We are used to think of that scene as a simple one in far away Galilee, but one Venetian artist introduced himself and half the sovereigns of the Europe of his time, all arrayed in richest costumes. So I say that with them religion was merely one more ceremonial.

It is a difficult matter to take our attention away from Venice the city even to consider her honored painters. We linger lovingly, wonderingly, over her glories—St. Mark's Cathedral, all fresco, mosaic and gold within and quite as splendid without, with its high altar over the very bones of the saint resting in the damp crypt, with its wonderful enamel and gold altar piece, its columns gathered from the East and its beautiful mosaic floors. We know its exterior quite as well—its flat domes telling too plainly of its relation with the buildings of Constantinople, its five grand openings in the façade with superb mural decorations above, its exquisitely carved stone work, its canopied saints and its renowned bronze horses.


Façade of St. Mark's, Venice


Interior of St. Mark's, Venice

In the plaza in front, very near to the water's edge, stand the two great columns of the city. On one, resting secure at a great height, is St. Theodore, on the other the famed lion of St. Mark. The latter, with his eyes of splendid gems, was stolen and taken to Paris. He was later returned by treaty but when he came back he was blind. He could not see the humiliation of the city over which he had presided for centuries. Perhaps it was in mercy that the French plucked from his head the jewels that had been his eyes. More likely it was greed.

Near at hand stands the campanile, or bell tower, in its lovely softened colors with the doves of St. Mark swarming about its top or peacefully feeding at its base. Somewhat farther away is the Bridge of Sighs about which so much has been written of truth and of fiction. Its lovely arch spans the canal and connects the palace of justice with the prison. It is a covered bridge and windows look out upon the canal. Many a prisoner must have grudgingly passed over here as he felt the last rays of day fading forever from his sight.


Bridge of Sighs

Or we may stand before that other bridge, the Bridge of the Rialto, celebrated for a very different reason. Here was the original centre of the city and here, in later times, bankers plied their calling or Shylocks pursued their unholy vocation of taking usury. Here even the common merchants and venders exchanged goods and provender.

Our interest, too, turns instinctively to the island of Murano where, almost from the earliest history of the city, the glass blowers had turned out their fairy-like creations flicked with gold and silver and colors richer than the Tyrian purple of old. The Sido, that long tongue of land lying to the east, where are gardens of goodly extent is another point of interest to us and an object of love to the native Venetians.


Grand Canal and Byzantine Palace, Venice

From the beautiful and stately city, with its unending charm of color and silence and storied buildings, let us turn to some of her sons who have added glory to the history of painting.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Leonardo da Vinci  |  Next: Early Venetian Art
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.